Tips for recording oral histories
When you record an oral history, remember that you're an interested relative, not a hard-nosed reporter. Recording an oral history should be an enjoyable experience for everyone involved, and you're more likely to get good results if that's the case. Below are a few tips:
- Schedule the oral history session in advance. Don't just show up on a person's doorstep unexpectedly.
- Bring a tape recorder, or pen and paper, or both. If you want to use a tape recorder, make sure you get prior permission from the person you're interviewing. You may want to take a few notes even if you use a tape recorder, perhaps to get the correct spellings of places and people's names. If you use a tape recorder, be sure to test the recorder as well as the tape to make sure that each is working.
- Make sure you record the date and location of the interview, as well as the name of the interviewer and the interviewee.
- Ask questions to start things off, but don't be afraid to let the person you're interviewing talk "off the subject." You may get some of the best stories this way. If they really start rambling, gently steer them back to your questions.
- Don't push for answers. If you're asking questions that seem to make the person uncomfortable, ask if they want to continue or if they would rather talk about something else.
- If you ask "when" something happened, the answer will often be "I don't know, " because the individual doesn't recall the exact date or year. Instead of asking "when," ask the question in relation to another event. For example, did an event take place before or after the individual got married, or before or after the individual's parents died? You can also begin the question with "About how old were you when...." Using these techniques, you're more likely to get answers.
- If you have any old pictures or other items that you have questions about, bring them along. You may get answers to your questions, and you will probably hear some good stories, too.
- Keep the session relatively short, no more than one or two hours. Recording an oral history should be fun, not hard work. You can schedule another session at a later date if you want to continue recording the oral history.
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